On March 28, 2006, Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law Senate Bill 6613, making it a Class C felony to play games of chance online for money. In so doing, she gave Washington the distinction of being the first state in the country to definitively outlaw online gambling; Congress wouldn’t pass similar legislation for another six and a half months. But SB 6613 also gave Seattle native Lee Rousso something to fight for.
Rousso was between marriages in 2006 and had turned to Internet poker to pass the time; he’d even qualified for the World Series of Poker—Las Vegas’s annual, big-money, in-person showdown—through an online site. So, when the state threatened to take away his new pastime, he went all-in to protect it by filing a lawsuit to overturn the law. “Within a half-hour of my house, I can probably drive to 20 casinos, so the state doesn’t really care if I gamble or not,” he says now. “But if I try to do it from my house, gee, that’s a problem?”
Technically Internet gambling was always a misdemeanor under the Washington State Constitution. The 2006 law, sponsored by State Senator Margarita Prentice, a Democrat from Renton, just clarified things and raised the stakes for online poker players. And, in fact, it wasn’t the first example of Washington’s efforts to restrict wagering to the real world. The Washington State Gambling Commission began investigating Internet gambling sites as far back as 2002, and in 2005 the agency banded together with more than a dozen other agencies to establish the Multi-State Internet Gambling Task Force. Though shutting down Internet gambling certainly reduces competition for casinos and card rooms, commission spokesperson Susan Arland says the law was designed to protect individual players from nefarious sites.
Rousso wasn’t just some crusading card shark; he was an attorney by trade. But the deck was stacked against him from the beginning. In May 2008, a King County judge ruled against his suit, and in September 2010 the state supreme court upheld the decision. Internet gambling was dealt its biggest blow the following April, though, when the FBI shut down the three biggest sites in the country, accusing them of money laundering and fraud.
It was a sobering turn of events for Rousso (“I wasn’t necessarily on the right side of history,” he says), but he’s confident that some day Internet gambling will be legal again—once the state figures out how to make money off of it. “It will thrive here someday,” he says, “but it’s going to be a long, drawn-out political battle.”